Archive for the ‘VaultPress’ tag

WordPress, Money, and Freedom

I see a creeping scourge overtaking the free ethos of the WordPress community, and I don’t like it. It’s not necessarily menacing, or threatening, or even really a scourge (as I know I just called it) but it’s a thing I don’t like and it took a plugin I’ve used for years being discontinued for me to more clearly see the problem.

WordPress as a whole — the community more than the tool — is less-free now than it was a year ago, and less so still than it was five years ago. That’s the nature of what I see as the problem. But the reason I’m so tentative to call it a problem is that WordPress is also a far better tool now than it was a year ago, and certainly far more than it was five years ago. And like it or not, I think this fundamental creeping unfreedom has, at the least, contributed to the rate at which WordPress has become a better tool than it has ever been.

In my estimation, the first foot-fall of this unfree menace (again, I say that but don’t wholly mean it) were the “premium” themes. Someone, I think it was Brian Gardner, had the reasonable thought that rather than making money solely by purpose-building WordPress themes for clients paying $500 and north, they could fill a market-gap with a well-made theme priced around $100. For users who wanted more than a free theme could give them, but less than hiring a designer would, they got a product that pretty well sat that gap.

One could debate endlessly whether there are more or less good free themes being made today, but judgement about that is inherently subjective and thus not worth making. What is almost certainly true is that free themes are no longer the only non-exclusive themes that exist. And while I, as a rather poor person certainly preferred it when all themes I could hope to use were free-as-in-beer, it’s not an unmitigated catastrophe that they aren’t.

It is worrying how likely it is that because “premium” themes aren’t free-as-in-beer, they’re not building on each other. Being harder to get makes them less likely to be publicly modified and enhanced by others, and to be used to make other similar themes better. Again, we need to balance these facts with the fact that there are more better-quality themes generally, etc, but the effect is not negligible.

Now the other day, the WordPress.com Stats plugin declared to me it has been discontinued in preference to Jetpack, which Automattic portrays as the plugin to “blast-off” into the fun world of WordPress.com features. It’s also, almost certainly, going to give Automattic a convenient place to get self-hosted WordPress users to enter the world of paying for some features, as has always been the available on WordPress.com.

Again, this isn’t ransom or anything. It’s a completely sensible — even admirable — business move, but it’s not exactly fostering freedom and building better software for all users. How many features might not be built into the core of WordPress because Automattic has a money-making Jetpack feature that does the same thing? (Is the reason there is no backup functionality in the WordPress core that VaultPress exists?) Questions like this always contain some alarmism, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the potential for a conflict of interest.

These type of vague but indefensible concerns are precisely why I bristled at the thought of replacing what was a relatively lean and fast plugin with the colossus that is Jetpack. I have no concrete reason to think the WordPress core will suffer so Automattic can make more money, but that fact that a I’m seeing more and more avenues by which this could come to pass definitely gives me pause. And that, I guess, is all I’m really trying to say.

After all, as one of my favorite quotes goes:

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

The Best Free WordPress Backup Plugin I’ve Found

If there’s one thing I’m certain of in the world of computers, it’s the value of a good backup. A good backup has three traits:

  • It’s effortless.
  • It captures everything you care about.
  • It can easily be used to make things as they were.

For a long time, my WordPress backup was one of these three. I’ve been using WordPress Database Backup since I started using WordPress. It is great at doing what it advertises: backing up your database. But that’s all it does. So all your themes and plugins, all your uploaded photos and movies, everything that doesn’t reside in the database isn’t backed up.

I was able to justify this to myself because there weren’t many good backup solutions for WordPress when I started using it four years ago. And mercifully, my web host never had any catastrophic loss of data that made me regret my laziness. But depending on any single entity (including yourself) to not use lose your data is foolish.

When VaultPress came out I thought (for a second) that it might be my long awaited solution. And though I’ve never used it, I’m fairly confident that Automattic has created the best WordPress backup (and more) product available on the market. If you use VaultPress, they’re backing up your whole blog at sane intervals and make restoring from those as easy as it can be. It fulfills all three of the mentioned criteria, but at a minimum of $15 per site per month costs way more than I’m willing to spend to back up my three blogs. (If I didn’t have three, I’d have been far more likely to take that rate seriously.)

With the potential for an official free solution looking dim, I started thinking about other options. When Roy Tanck blogged about a Dropbox-utilizing option last November, I was intrigued. (I, like most of you, have a Dropbox account with plenty of space left. If you don’t have one, go signup. It’s free and a great way to access your files from anywhere.)  But when he mentioned that making it work well would require setting up cron jobs, the laziness that had me only backing up my database beat out my desire to have this issue solved.

And then, a few months ago I saw on WPCandy Michael De Wildt’s WordPress Backup to Dropbox plugin and there finally seemed to be an easy-enough solution. It’s not a perfect solution (more on that in a bit), but it’s easy enough and complete enough that I finally, for the first time, have full backups of all my WordPress sites that I can use to quickly restore things to a pre-disaster state. There’s no need to create a cron job, no need to do anything much at all once you’ve set it up and told it when you want to backup your stuff. It just works seamlessly, only alerting you to its functioning when Dropbox tells you that it’s pushing the backups to your computer.

As I said though, it’s not perfect. The highest number of demerits are due to the setup. It can be a bit of bear, especially if you’re not all that comfortable with web server administration. It’s not that the plugin doesn’t work, but that depending on your hosting plan you’ll have to figure out how to change a few PHP defaults that can stop the plugin as it works.

To save resources many hosts use low defaults for things like the time a process can work (max_execution_time) and the amount of memory it can take (memory_limit). This isn’t a problem for something like WordPress where no process monopolizes many server resources, but building and uploading a backup takes time and memory greater than my default PHP install permitted, and this meant it was killing the process the plugin was trying to use to do it’s work. (If you’re wondering, I believe the defaults in my host’s php.ini were 60 and 8M, the values that I used to get the plugin working without error are 600 and 128M.) My defaults seems a bit anomalous, and De Wildt has also made great strides in minimizing these problems by changing the way the plugin works, so it’s entirely possible you won’t encounter these issues.

Nonetheless, this default problem can easily lead to you thinking your data’s secure when it’s truly not. And this is where the plugin could be better: when backups fail repeatedly, it would be good if users would get a big warning on their Dashboard announcing that their data isn’t secure. As it is, you have to go to the plugin’s setting page to find out that the plugin you were running for two weeks never managed to do much of anything.

Finally, it’s worth touching on restoring, which is not currently something the plugin will do for you. If you have a catastrophic loss of data, all you need to do is upload the data the plugin has downloaded and import the database backup into your new MySQL instance. In the interest of being thorough, I tried this locally and it seems to work just as expected. All my plugins were running, my pictures were there, and my themes were available. It’s not the easiest imaginable restore (I’m sure many people are still scared by phpMyAdmin), but I don’t think there’s a better option available for no charge.

Even with my noted issues, I can wholeheartedly say that WordPress Backup to Dropbox is the first WordPress backup plugin that I feel satisfies all three of my essential backup criteria without costing more than I’m willing to spend. If you run your own WordPress blog and aren’t currently running a thorough backup plugin, you no longer have a good excuse.